The truth about online shopping

Last Updated 22 January 2010, 11:49 IST

Getting my Christmas gift list sorted is normally the hardest task of all in the run-up to the festival. Last month, for the first time ever, it was the easiest.

No rushing around like a headless chicken, no last-minute dash to the shops for a gift for Aunty Mary, no endless stress about whether I’d be able to leave work in time to get to the mall before it shut — and all because I chose to properly embrace the internet.

Weeks before the main event, I logged on, sometimes at home, sometimes sneakily at work, and bought all manner of things, from clothes to luggage, books to jewellery and loads and loads of sweets and chocolates.

I’d gotten everything done, bought all the final bits and wrapped what hadn’t been delivered directly to the recipient well in time for the big day. As a result, I was calm, stress-free and actually kicking back with a glass of wine on Christmas Eve, when I’d normally be making a frantic, last-minute round of the shops. Bliss indeed.

Retail therapy anytime

I’d sat in the comfort of my home and made my decisions, coolly and calmly, without being pestered by an endless stream of arrogant/ ingratiating/ mindless salespeople. No wondering if I was missing out on a better deal elsewhere because I’d comparison shopped and determined who offered the best value of all without actually having to zip around the city from point to point in an endless loop.

Is it any wonder, then, that I am not alone?

Indeed, more and more we are buying online. The internet retail sector in India is reportedly growing at a rate of 30 per cent per year over the last few years and the country is poised to have third largest population of internet users within the next four years, by 2013. Add to that traffic that is getting progressively worse in the major cities and more spending power as the economy continues to hurtle along, growing between six and eight per cent annually — and that can only mean we’re all going to shopping over the internet even more.

Of course, like I learned at Christmas, the main reason we like shopping online is the sheer convenience of it all. Not only can we debate the merits and demerits of a pair of sandals from the comfort of our armchairs, we get to avoid having to tramp up and down town looking through shops for what we want. And it’s much worse when the sales are on — fighting off manic crowds and waiting endlessly to try on what you want to buy.

But much of this seems to apply largely to shopping for gifts.

Right now at least, the Indian online retail market is estimated at a mere Rs 1,105 crore or $230 million, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, as compared to the UK’s $15 billion. By contrast, the entire Indian retail market is estimated at between $350 billion and $400 billion — so clearly, the sector really is only a niche market.

Touch & feel factor

While internet connectivity — and familiarity — is the dominant reason why we’re not buying as much online as we could, for a large segment of a population still getting used to finding everything available on our own shores, shopping is still a fun way to pass the time. A lot of us enjoy hitting the shops even if we don’t really want to buy anything — particularly with high-end luxury goods, where half the fun is in waltzing into well-finished emporiums and fingering merchandise you’re never going to buy.

Then there’s the issue of sizing, particularly with garments. A shirt labelled extra-large in one store may well be marked medium in another, and often, these variations surface even within the same brand, frustrating the time-conscious shopper no end. Indian manufacturers need to stick to one standardised size, but it seems no industry body is as yet willing to take the lead on this front.

And until this is sorted out, the ‘touch and feel’ factor will continue to remain important.

At least equally as important is being able to trust brands to deliver what we want, in the sizes and colours we want, and should we change our minds, take the items back at no extra cost.

However, by and large, India remains what Western consumer protection agencies privately call cowboy country, with consumers’ rights and buyer protection laws all virtually non-existent. Even when you’ve bought something from a neighbourhood shop, it can often be difficult to exchange it without invoking a generations-old relationship, so why would anyone trust an online retailer to take something back?

Mobile or mouse?

Retailers, on the other hand, don’t trust the consumer either. Once the product has been sold and delivered, who cares if the consumer is unhappy? There are a billion more where she came from.

It would serve retailers well to address these needs, however, if they want internet shopping to take off exponentially any time soon — for canny shoppers have now latched on to another trend and are pushing the envelope even further.

Forget shopping online, consumers everywhere are tapping in — quite literally – to the mobile shopping trend.

But that’s another story, and offers something else for me to test out next Christmas!

(Published 22 January 2010, 11:43 IST)

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